While traditional media, such as TV and press were quick to take advantage of digital opportunities - with TV gaining a new "i" prefix and print publishers extending their brands online - technology has had a less obvious effect on the outdoor industry.
True, new technologies have led to a host of ambient start-ups trying to market the latest flashing, rotating advertising channels, but many of these hopefuls have also ended up in receivership. Meanwhile, for the mainstream outdoor media owners, it's been business as usual.
Well almost. Because behind the scenes contractors have been busy testing some innovative new ideas. 2002 is shaping up to be the year when technology discernably changes the poster market as the heavyweight players bring in new systems and services.
Most of the major contractors have some new launch or imminent arrival to tweak the adventurous advertiser's fancy. Viacom Outdoor is rolling out its new cross-track projection (XTP) system - effectively a series of
projectors that beam ads on to the walls opposite the platforms at tube stations. The first station to get the system will be Euston in June.
Most of the major contractors, however, have taken a more expedient route of using technology to improve their existing offerings, rather than gambling investment capital on a new format that could well be the next media
white elephant. For instance, Clear Channel UK is launching a network of LED posters, with one up in Bristol city centre and five more due to roll out across the country by the middle of the year. The LED copy can be updated from a remote location within 10 minutes and Clear Channel UK's vision is that the system will eventually give advertisers access to an instantly updateable national network.
Clear Channel UK chief executive Stevie Spring says this philosophy of boosting a traditional format, as opposed to trying to reinvent the six-sheet, is the only economically viable strategy.
"If we could put plasma screens everywhere we use paper it would give clients great flexibility, but we'd go bankrupt within a week. Clients want us to deliver the target audience efficiently and flexibly - but also
economically," she says.
And, however high-tech the execution, Spring says the same core principles apply.
"While we're innovating, we shouldn't take our eye off the ball and forget the fundamentals - location, location, location. Also, whether the format rolls or whether it scrolls, the campaign's not going to work if the creative doesn't."
JCDecaux Airport also has installed a Sony LED screen at Heathrow's terminal one, which, the company says, is at least 20 times brighter than a plasma screen, so gives maximum cut-through to an audience which is 88% ABC1. When the technology was trialled by Sun Microsystems for three months at the end of 2001, research found that 84% of the respondents had a positive perception of the screen.
Decaux has also rolled out a new product called Chameleon which it has just used as part of its launch campaign for the new Primera, thus scoring one of those "media firsts" so beloved by the outdoor industry. The creative work on the Chameleon changes according to whether the backlight is on or off, allowing brands to broadcast one message during the day and one for the nightbirds.
At the end of the day though, Decaux's marketing director David McEvoy agrees with Spring that digital gadgetry is not going to change the poster industry overnight.
"Technology is having more of an effect on niche areas - such as bars, washrooms and taxis - than on anything of a broadcast nature," he says.
"It's very difficult to see 60,000 six-sheets in the streets being replaced by screens - it's an outdoor environment with planning considerations and there's the cost of the hardware. But there's one thing on the horizon that may change everything and be a defining moment for outdoor - Electronic Ink."
E-Ink, which is being developed for outdoor application by companies worldwide, including a Dublin-based outfit called Enterra, will allow a poster to be altered by electronic currents that prompt chemical reactions among the pixels that make up the colours on the poster. Toppan Printing in Japan, for one, last month added £17.5m to its investment in the technology, which could enable advertisers to rapidly alter entire poster campaigns without the use of one roller.
The other ground-breaking idea which is traditional in every way bar one is the giant banner. Pioneered in the UK by companies such as Mega Profile, Blow Up, Mega Poster and Van Wagner, it has inspired the major contractors to think big, too. JCDecaux, for example, has unleashed The Difference - a network of five 60' by 15' sites in prime positions.
These banners are still used as a spectacular add-on to gain PR for a launch campaign, rather than in any long-term, accountable way. Calvin Klein, for example, held a photocall earlier this month in front of its ad on Mega Profile's Tottenham Court Road site to publicize its new male model.
"Everybody's looking for stand-out and these banners rise above the regular hoardings and all the street advertising clutter," says Mega Profile managing director Harry Torrance. "Advertisers and agencies appreciate the huge media advantage of being able to totally dominate an important urban environment. It's like having a whole break in the News at Ten or a half-page ad on the front page of a national - which you can't get, incidentally."
The specialists have recognized the importance of these emerging areas by setting up dedicated departments. Blade - which was the first specialist to set up an ambient division - has set up a team focused on giant banners and Outdoor Connection has risen to the new media challenge with Digital Connection.
The specialists will also agree that, vital as the final ad is, back-end systems and industry initiatives are also important. Among these are the outdoorandambient.com directory, developed by Optimad and Blade, and More O'Ferrall's Postaweb, which allows digital photographs of sites to be viewed online. More flexible sales deals, such as the seven and 10-day packages that have long been standard on the continent and contractors
including JCDecaux and Clear Channel UK have introduced over here, are also welcomed.
As Concord managing director Nigel Mansell says, the sector needs to push forward on a series of fronts.
"Outdoor continues to lead both in terms of the way the channel is developing - with screens, XTP and other digital innovation - and the way the medium is traded, with day-part buying and a good buyer/seller balance. The improving audience delivery of outdoor will continue to flourish with new technology being the catalyst for future growth."